Edited by Neil Astley
Bloodaxe Books, Northumberland, 2004
Review by Bill Kirton
The opening sentence I wanted to write was ‘Gone are the days when admitting you read poetry immediately threw doubt on your sexual orientation’ but the trouble is that, in our crude, glottal-stopped culture, the mistrust of effete dandies, a scorn for swooning ladies, and the conviction that the consumptive guy starving in the attic should get up off his arse and get a job still prevail. There’s also the nagging feeling, even amongst the enlightened few, that some of the modern poets are taking the piss, rather like Tracey Emin and Damien Hurst in the visual arts. I’m not a poet but I’ve written Vogon poetry for fun and I’ve dashed off parodies of ‘modern verse’ which have on occasion been taken seriously. (Vogon poetry, for the uninitiated, is the ‘the third worst poetry in the Universe’ and was unveiled in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) There are still far too many occasions when I read a poem and wonder why the lines stop where they do and what distinguishes it from prose.
All of which suggests I’m not the man to write a review of a poetry anthology. But I was directed towards Being Alive by a poet friend and lo, the scales have fallen from my eyes. (Well, mostly.) It’s a highly enjoyable (and often tear-producing) book. Well over 400 pages of poetry which, for me, meet the editor’s desire to ‘give readers as many hair-raising, head-lifting poems as possible … balancing heart-rending, gut-wrenching poems of explosive power with gentler, playful, witty, thought-provoking poems of tenderness and sensuality’. While I can’t make much informed comment about their technical worth, I can record that very few of them produced my habitual yawn response or the feeling that I was faced with pretentious, meaningless crap, and most of them triggered that wonderful sensation of hearing something said which I’d thought or experienced before but never heard articulated so accurately or with such resonance. Also, as a writer, I’m stunned by the way in which so many of these images or turns of phrase open up huge internal distances and possibilities, extend seemingly simple meanings into vast associations.
Poetry is unjustly relegated to the realms of the esoteric; it’s still the purest form of expression. And the examples chosen here prove that it’s also very accessible. There are countless mini-narratives, self-contained poems focusing on a seemingly tiny incident or looking back over a life, many lives, or lives that never managed to begin, still-births – actual or of the imagination – full and empty lives, glimpsed possibilities. In other words, it evokes all the familiar human experiences from joys to the bleakest sorrows. And beyond that, the collection is organised in a way that also implies an overall narrative. The poems are grouped in sections whose titles are self-explanatory: Exploring the World, Taste and See, Family, Love Life, Men and Women, Being and Loss, Daily Round, Lives, Mad World, Ends and Beginnings. In each there are poems exploring the theme from different angles. I want very much to quote some examples in order to show their range and power but, in the end, that would turn this review into a list. There are just so many brilliantly conceived and executed pieces – an achingly apt image, an individual line or couplet, entire poems. But which would I leave out? And anyway, would my choices be the ones you’d respond to? Instead, I’ll just quote one line which was part of my poet friend’s email to suggest I might be interested to read this. It’s not one of the heartbreakers or lightning flashes of wit but it is an example of the poet’s apparent artlessness, a choice of words which opens meanings that keep shifting and unfolding. It’s from Fleur Adcock who, in a poem called Weathering, delights in her beautiful surroundings and notes that her face may be weather-beaten by the wind off the snow-line but accepts it willingly because:
‘to look out of my window at the high pass
makes me indifferent to mirrors and to what
my soul may wear over its new complexion’.
If I could get that sort of concision into my writing, my novels might only be pamphlets but they’d be bloody good.
One last point: I dip into being alive most days and read two or three poems aloud and it’ll keep me going for a long time. But what I didn’t know before I bought it is that it’s a sequel to a collection called Staying Alive, which almost as soon as it was published (2002) became Britain’s most popular poetry book. I’ve ordered that one too.
I urge you to banish images of condemned young men reclining palely on their chaises longues, dabbing their fevered (possibly even tubercular) brows with silk kerchiefs, and rediscover the mystery of language at its most powerful.